POLICY: , Yet again caught up in the bluster of the drug war

Last week I wrote a piece at Spot-on criticizing the Calvinists in the medicine cabinet —  the theocratic fascists social conservatives who use the DEA to dictate prohibition and are increasingly bringing this irrational posturing into mainstream Republican (and thus government) policy. One thing I touched on is the suggestion that buying up the Afghan opium crop and using it for medicinal opiates might be one way of mitigating the problems of opium being the only viable cash crop there, with the consequence that the Taliban et al benefit from controlling it. Harvey Frey, an occasional contributor to THCB, trotted out some very tired and just plain wrong comments about the drug war and prohibition:

The idea that legalizing and licensing opium in Afghanistan will decrease the illegal opium trade is fantasy. Medical morphine sulphate is cheap – far cheaper than the far less effective modern concoctions of Big Pharma. Why would any opium farmer sell his crop cheaply to legitimate buyers, when he can get orders of magnitude higher prices from the black market?

So, if we go with a social libertarian policy, and decriminalize recreational opium use, how will we deal with the medical and social problems of the vastly increased numbers of users? We seem to have trouble paying for medical care now. How will we pay for care for millions of unemployed, uninsured addicts? Will we end up like China after the Opium Wars?

I wouldn’t usually go after this type of comment here, but Harvey’s arguments are flat out wrong. And someone needs to try to convert those people who are reachable. Harvey’s a scientist, so presumably he believes in data. So here goes:

a) the concept that the farmers get more for illegal poppies than legal ones is bullshit. I have met illegal opium farmers in Laos living in huts with mud floors, and legal ones in Tasmania living in fabulous farm houses. No question who’s getting more for their crop. The difference in cost is due to the middle men’s cut which is huge, again due to the illegality of the end product…which boosts its cost to the end user. And of course that boosts the amount available for criminals (including some very nasty ones in the Middle East). This is one occasion when I’m much rather J&J and GSK had the money. If we bought out the crop then the opium farmers would have the same amount of money and the criminals/terrorists would have much less. (Hey we do it with all kinds of other agricultural crops….)

b) there is no evidence that regulating and controlling the distribution of any illegal substance increases its use compared to attempting (and failing) to maintain its prohibition. Countries that have a harm reduction policy (Switzerland, Germany) for heroin/opiate/methadone have lower addiction and use rates than those with prohibitionist policies (the US). Kids in Amsterdam use marijuana at lower levels than those in the US, while it’s freely and legally available there, and theoretically illegal here.

More importantly the costs of addiction are not predominantly those of caring for the unemployed addicts. Several programs (again see Switzerland, Germany, and even the UK in the 1990s) show that legitimized maintenance programs allow addicts to maintain a normal life, including working and holding down jobs. BTW one of the forefathers of American surgery, William Halsted,  was a morphine addict, which never prevented him from practically inventing much modern medicine. It’s driving addicts into the black market and into the hands of criminal pushers that causes them to descend into the state Harvey suggests causes so much social malaise. Furthermore, in the only ever successful case of a steep decline in the use of a highly addictive drug (tobacco in the US in the last 30 years), its use rate fell because of education about its health effects. It was and is a legal product. And should stay that way. And we should treat other drug use the same way.

Finally, the societal costs of drug addiction absolutely pale in comparison to the societal costs of prohibition. We spend some $90 bn a year trying and failing to prohibit drugs in this country. There are fewer than 3 million drug addicts. So we’re already spending around $30,000 per addict on attempting to prohibit drugs–way more than the cost of supporting addicits even if they were not contributing at all to society and the economy. And that doesn’t count the cost to society such as the crime they commit to fund their drug habits, which is eliminated in Switzerland, Holland, etc.

The whole way we approach this — justified by the type of wrong information that Harvey puts out — is completely irrational, unless of course you are one of those in the prison-industrial complex benefiting from that spending. But of course the other supporters of the drug war, the theocratic fascists, glory in being post-enlightenment and completely irrational anyway.

7 replies »

  1. Legalisation of Afghan poppy cultivation could go ahead as of now and should if the country is to extricate itself from the spiral of violence in which it seems to be slipping. Terrorist activities are linked to the illicit opium trade and as farmers are obliged to grow poppy to feed their families it seems more sensible to develop a system that would allow them to do this for medical use than penalise them and thus exacerbate the extreme poverty that is currently a huge problem in rural areas. There is an organisation, The Senlis Council, that seems to have a good solution: legalise poppy cultivation as part of controlled poppy for medicine projects and produce poppy-based medicines within the village in order to limit diversion and add value to the product the proceeds of which can then be used to promote economic diversification and break ties with the illicit opium trade. See their report/ blueprint for “Poppy for Medicines” at http://www.senliscouncil.net/modules/publications/documents/poppy_medicine_technical_dossier.
    Drug regulations should be adapted to the contexts in which they are functionning – in the case of Afghanistan, legalisation of poppy cultivation could be the only way to avoid the 100% diversion rates currently going towards the opium and heroin trade.

  2. Plus on re-reading my piece there was one line about marijuana and two paragraphs about opiates and harm reduction–not exactly avoiding your argument. My logic wins out any time on this subject, but sadly we dont live in an age where logic prevails on this or many subjects.

  3. Harvey, Amsterdam may well be the center for pot tourism in Europe, but I am not avoiding your argument. Amsterdam’s also one of many European places (Zurich, Germany and sadly no longer, the UK) that allow dispensing of maintenance doses of opiates to heroin/morphine addicts.
    And the answer is that harm reduction coupled with public education removes the vast majority of the massive harm prohibition does.
    No one is suggesting that the 19th century Chinese situation be allowed. That would be the equivalent of forcing McDonalds to sell heroin. But legal carefully regulated distribution of marijuana, and carefully regulated legal programs, under the auspices of physicians and pharmacists, to control opiates (and meth, and other highly addicitive drugs) would work much better for the addicts and for society. That is unless you like having your car radio stolen on a regular basis.
    AND it would have the bonus side effect of killing the black market for distribution of those drugs, therefore removing the incentive for the bad guys to get the heroin, and removing the money they make from it, which they use for even nastier purpses.

  4. Matthew:
    I was talking about an unquestionably highly addictive drug, morphine, and you switched the subject to the much less addictive marijuana. Well, if you can’t fight the argument that’s made, fight an easier one. The potential for physical addiction is the critical point here.
    My paradigm for a country inundated with morphine is China, after it lost the war to keep the Brits from pushing opium on them, not pot-happy Amsterdam.
    As Anders points out, the current drug middlemen wouldn’t sit idly by while we destroy their business. Apart from the violence, having a far higher selling price, they can easily afford to outbid any buyer who intends to sell at the current low price for legal morphine.
    As for the poor price Afghan growers are currently getting, they grow poppies because they make far more from them than from any other crop, and they can support their families with this crop. Comparing farmers in 3d-world Laos with those in 1st-world Australia is as irrational as comparing morphine with marijuana.
    I am certainly not an anti-morphine activist, having used it in vast quantities for many years for my cancer patients.
    My argument was more with your libertarian idea that goverment should let people do anything they want to themselves, even though government retains the responsibility for coming to their aid to repair the damage. That tends to lead to the proposition that government shouldn’t have to take care of the injuries that people do to themselves, and that swells to a call to refuse to pay for diseases resulting from other life style choices. Some suggest charging higher premiums for risky life-styles, but not everyone can pay even low premiums. As a compassionate society, we will treat even those who brought both illness and poverty on themselves. But that’s not part of the libertarian philosophy.
    Doctors should be treating people, not judging them.

  5. there’s also other benefits to having it distributed by the government (or someone affiliated with the government)
    the main one being tax. if things like marijuana were distributed and sold by a governing body, it could be taxed and the government could make so much money from that, and they also wouldn’t have to spend as much money on trying to police it – 2 financial gains in 1.
    Medical Marijuana Forums

  6. Indeed, the problem with buying Afghanistan’s opium crop (besides the ideological impossibility of it all) is military, not financial. The current opium buyers are not the type that takes kindly to competition, and there is not enough good men and women with guns around to protect the producers.